Travel is prohibited. You cannot get closer to someone than six feet, so, as the too-familiar slogan states, if a kiss begins with Kay, then it ends by a virus. Nobody can eat at Taco Bell. The grocery store is still open, but you’d be lucky to find toilet paper. (Why toilet paper?!) The government has closed National Parks, so you can’t go hiking. The Olympic committee has cancelled the Olympics. And church doors, across both America and the entire world, are slamming shut. Quietly closing, actually, since most people don’t seem to care much. Church is closed. Or is it?
Can a virus end a religion?
A Church Destroyed
Travel with me 2,600 years back in history. A similar situation was presenting itself, but rather than the perpetrator being a virus, it was an empire. The king of Babylon had determined to rule the world, conquering cities and nations around him—close at first, then far away. Babylon transformed from a city to an empire. As the empire expanded, the armies of Babylon moved into the kingdom of Judah, taking control of all the surrounding towns and countryside.
Finally the army arrived at Jerusalem. Taking control of the fortress would not be easy; it was a reputable stronghold. But after an 18 month siege with the foreign army camped around the city, Jerusalem ran out of food. The Babylonians broke through the wall and took control of the city. They captured all prestigious residents and members of the royal family, leaving just the paupers and farmers. They tore down the walls, burned the palaces and the glorious temple, known around the world, and took the gold temple instruments with them as they left.
Church was closed.
In the capital of their new overlord, the people of Judah settled into their unfamiliar new home. In an unusual move, Nebuchadnezzar, the king, had the young nobles and members of Judah’s royal family tested, and he gave the best and most intelligent ones training for work in his government. Babylon effectively immersed the conquered people in its own religion, culture, and society.
A Diet Problem
Though surrounded by Babylonian influence and given new names representing Babylonian gods, four of the young nobles in Nebuchadnezzar’s training did not completely adopt the new practices. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah famously rejected the food from the king’s table—far better than what conquerors normally gave captives—because their God had pronounced it unclean. In addition, the food was dedicated to the Babylonian gods, so eating it would dishonor their faith and their God. When they asked their supervisor Ashpenaz for vegetables and water instead of the king’s meat and wine, he exploded. “You would be malnourished, and the king would take my head!” They urged him to grant them permission to try it for ten days, and he finally consented. At the end of the ten days, the four young nobles were healthier than any of their fellows. Relieved, Ashpenaz granted permission for them to continue their diet.
The four would need to face challenges even tougher than their diet, though. The king granted them high positions in his government, even making Daniel the prime minister, second to himself. Several months after Daniel interpreted the king’s dream of the giant statue, Nebuchadnezzar decided to build a replica. Unlike the one in his dream, he made the replica entirely gold, and scheduled a dedication. Daniel was absent from the dedication, probably since the king knew he wouldn’t bow to the idol and excused him.
Faithfulness Beyond Church
Daniel’s three friends came with the rest of Babylon to the ceremony though, and quickly faced trouble. When the king commanded the people to bow to the god, the three refused even to bluff, standing tall, sticking out like trees in the desert. The king commanded his officials to bring them, reminded them of the death punishment, and offered a second chance. They refused. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. [If we must be thrown in,] our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)
So the soldiers threw them in.
Daniel, many years later, when Babylon had fallen to Persia, followed his friends. The king had signed a law prohibiting worship of any god other than himself. The leaders threw Daniel into a den of lions after seeing him praying to God, as was his custom.
Daniel and his friends, known by their Babylonian names Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, had a large influence. Many Babylonians, including Nebuchadnezzar himself, began to worship their God. And by the way, God saved them from the furnace and lions’ den. They didn’t expect it though, so how did these four stand firm in the face of almost certain death? Because they loved their God more than life itself. What Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego said to the king in front of the fiery furnace demonstrates this love: “…but if not, oh king, even if God doesn’t save us, we still won’t bow.”
Had their church closed? Not really. Just its building.
We Are The Church
Friends, we’re not facing a fiery furnace or lions’ den. We do live in a foreign land—God never meant earth to be our home. And our church is closed. But does that matter? What if our religion, our faith, our love for God, was independent of all that? What if, like the four young nobles, we remain faithful to God anyway, and take the opportunity to share God outside of church? Isn’t that where we need to share the most, anyway, since those are the people who don’t know God?
Recently leaders of an Adventist church convention which meets every five years announced that they’re postponing it until next year. In addition, they will substantially reduce its size, allowing only delegates and essential leaders to attend. Commenters on the news article showed various reactions, but one comment struck me. “I’ve attended every time,” the commenter said. “It was a tradition while I grew up. It felt like heaven on earth. Now they’re taking that away from us.” I thought about how the Christian church as a whole is shrinking. I remembered how even my denomination, which is growing, can barely keep up with population growth. Is it possible we’re focused on the wrong thing? Are we focusing so much on being able to attend one “heaven” that we are forgetting about sharing the real one?
That would be a tragedy, and it doesn’t have to be the case. Our beautiful churches, our Christian events, will all be destroyed when the earth is made new. They’re here for a purpose—to help us take the gospel to the world. Let’s focus on the goal, not the tool we use to achieve it. A currently viral quote says, “with church doors shutting across North America, it is time for us to show that the church has never been about the building. We are the church.”
Our buildings are closed. But let’s keep the church open!